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Abstract

Social media has invaded our private, professional, and public lives. While corporations continue to portray social media as a celebration of self-expression and freedom, public opinion, by contrast, seems to have decidedly turned against social media. Yet we continue to use it just the same. What is social media, and how should we live with it? Is it the promise of a happier and more interconnected humanity, or a vehicle for toxic self-promotion? In this essay I examine the very structure of social media communications in order to sketch how we should engage with social media. Social media communications are, I argue, a public communication of private content. This allows connections to be made with others in ways that would not otherwise be possible; however, it also submits the private to a status competition, which in turn is linked to mental health challenges. A ‘virtuous’ engagement with social media means being aware of these dynamics, and choosing to subordinate social media to other, more important goods.
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Reclaiming Care and Privacy in the Age of Social Media
In: Jefferson, A., Palermos, O., Paris, P., Webber, J.
(eds.) Virtues and Values in a Changing World.
Cambridge University Press.
Hugh Desmond
ORC-ID: 0000-0002-4822-923X
@DesmondHugh
Abstract
Social media has invaded our private, professional, and public lives.
While corporations continue to portray social media as a celebration of
self-expression and freedom, public opinion, by contrast, seems to have
decidedly turned against social media. Yet we continue to use it just the
same. What is social media, and how should we live with it? Is it the
promise of a happier and more interconnected humanity, or a vehicle for
toxic self-promotion? In this essay I examine the very structure of social
media communications in order to sketch how we should engage with
social media. Social media communications are, I argue, a public
communication of private content. This allows connections to be made
with others in ways that would not otherwise be possible; however, it also
submits the private to a status competition, which in turn is linked to
mental health challenges. A “virtuous” engagement with social media
means being aware of these dynamics, and choosing to subordinate social
media to other, more important goods.
KEYWORDS:
Social Media – Communication Ethics – Trust – Social Status – Relationships
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Nobody today seems to be genuinely indifferent to social media. Some of us are
enthusiastic users, posting daily about our personal and professional lives. Others stay
away entirely. Yet others are reluctant or ambivalent users. Nonetheless, as varied as
attitudes may be, it is clear that we social media provokes reactions in ways that many
other technologies – washing machines, for instance – do not.
Long gone are the days when the virtual spaces of the internet were populated
by the proverbial nerds and misfits. Today, social media is where success is sought by
politicians, corporations, and professionals of all stripes. Likes and followers have
become a currency that can be converted into power, revenue, or prestige. Even in
academia that traditionally ivory-tower community likes and followers are
increasingly chased, as evidence mounts that they lead to citations, and hence funding
and job opportunities (Luc et al. 2020).
There is something disturbing about the way social media is transforming our
private, professional, and public lives. A recent Pew survey showed that 64% of U.S.
adults believe that social media have a mostly negative impact on society, six times
than the 10% who were optimistic (Auxier 2020). The cited reasons mainly concern
misinformation, harassment, hate, polarization, and echo chambers. Such opinions
are now shaping public discourse. For instance, some politicians have taken to openly
blaming social media platforms for promoting misinformation and vaccine hesitancy
(BBC News 2021).
One of the most worrying consequences concerns mental health. Teenagers are
vulnerable, and especially teenage girls. Between 2000 and 2015, the suicide rate for
teenage girls doubled, with two thirds of that rise occurring between 2010 and 2015
alone. Jean Twenge and colleagues (2018) point to the introduction of the smartphone
as the turning point: with that invention, social media could be accessed anytime and
anywhere, just as long as one hand was free.
Such challenges underline just how novel the social media environment is for a
social species such as ours. For the overwhelming part of our history, we gossiped or
joked with a relatively small number of people. In fact, according to anthropologists,
our cognition cannot handle much more than about 150 social relationships (Dunbar
1992). By contrast, on social media our banter and bragging reaches thousands or even
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millions. Social media has taken root in our evolved desire for community, then
twisted it in new ways. For instance, psychologists notice how social media intensifies
comparisons between one’s own social status and that of others (J.-L. Wang et al.
2017) and promotes expressions of outrage (Brady et al. 2021).
How should we respond to these novel challenges? One approach is to seek
reform of the social media environment, in order to reduce the challenges that users
structurally face. Calls for privacy protection can be situated in this approach, as can
proposals to make platforms less addictive, or to design other types of reaction to posts
in order to reduce the anger and rage that can otherwise so easily flourish on social
media platforms (Tanesini, this volume). The other approach adopted in in this essay
(but also by e.g. Vallor 2016) will focus on how users can adopt more appropriate
responses to the social media environment. Given the structural challenges on social
media, how can users better direct their agency? In effect, as expanded on later, this
involves a virtue ethics of social media.
This essay’s main message will be to bring attention to what I argue is the most
fundamental structural challenge on social media: the intertwining of the private and
the public in new and often deceptive ways. I will link this to some of the problems
concerning social media’s impact on mental health, but will aim to sketch how
structural and unavoidable the public vs. private ambiguity is on social media.
This is the rationale to consciously reclaim space for the private aspects of our
lives, as well as have practical wisdom to guide communication on social media. This
task requires a certain detachment from the attitudes of “hype and disappointment”
that new technologies often provoke. It can be helpful therefore to digress briefly into
how another technology also once transformed our daily lives, our communities, and
even our sense of self: the automobile.
1. Technology and the Flux of Public Opinion. In one of the opening scenes from
The Wind in the Willows, a children’s novel from 1908, an encounter with a “motor-
car” is described in almost transcendent terms:
“… the magnificent motor-car, immense, breath-snatching, passionate, with its
pilot tense and hugging his wheel, possessed all earth and air for the fraction of
a second, flung an enveloping cloud of dust that blinded and enwrapped them
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utterly, and then dwindled to a speck in the far distance…” (Grahame and Hunt
2010, 22)
This encounter has an immediate polarizing effect. It provokes a complete
transformation in Toad, one of the central characters (an anthropomorphized upper-
class English gentleman), who becomes entirely obsessed with motor-cars. By
contrast, Rat is scandalized by the occurrence
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.
Toad’s adulation of cars was not merely a comic invention, but a parody of a
general attitude in the early 20th century. Historians report how the car initially was
imbued with all sorts of symbolic value: individual freedom, or the promise to make
cities cleaner and quieter (Flink 1972). The rival technologies of the railways and
horses were associated with corruption and harmful monopolies, or with major
burdens on quality of life. Horse-drawn carriages made a lot of noise (from the iron
wheels and iron horse shoes hitting cobble stones), parking them required a lot of
space, and removing horse excreta from the streets was a daily chore and expensive.
Dried remains of such excreta turned into what was called “street dust”, which caused
various respiratory diseases. Such was the draw of removing horses from public streets
that one of the leading automobile periodicals of the era was termed The Horseless
Age (Flink, 1972, p. 453). Due to this perceived potential, there was collective
enthusiasm about cars: “press coverage was overwhelmingly favourable; laws
regulating the motorcar were overly lenient” (Flink, 1972, p. 454).
However, not all were like Toad – a sizable minority sided with Rat. There were
those who blamed the technology for a range of social ills: “increased sexual
promiscuity, a decline in church attendance and the breakdown of the family and
neighborhood solidarity” (Flink, 1972, p. 460). It seems that few could be genuinely
indifferent towards the automobile, as is the case with social media today.
By the late 1950s public consciousness of the automobile had reached what
could be called a “mature” stage. Public spaces were no longer maximally sacrificed to
cars. Issues regarding safety and pollution were also no longer disregarded. Thus, in
the U.S. context for instance, laws on both air pollution and vehicle safety were passed
in 1965 and 1966 respectively (Flink, 1972, pp. 469-470).
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“You villains!’ he shouted, shaking both fists, ‘You scoundrels, you highwaymen, you you road-
hogs!* I’ll have the law on you! I’ll report you! I’ll take you through all the Courts!’” (Grahame and
Hunt 2010, 23)
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Today, cars remain status symbols for many and an obsession for a minority.
However, collectively we are more acutely aware of the downsides of cars compared to
a century ago. They are loud and a danger to vulnerable pedestrians. They pollute and
take up large tracts of public space. The gentrification of inner cities starting in the
1960s and accelerating in the decades afterwards (cf. Lees, Slater, and Wyly 2013)
reflects how many prefer not having long daily commutes by car. The high real estate
prices in leafy, quiet neighbourhoods reflect the undesirability of busy roads. In cities,
pedestrianized zones have been promoted as a way to reclaim public space from cars
(Gallo and Marinelli 2020).
2. Between hype and disappointment. Like the automobile before it, social
media seems to be going through a “hype-disappointment cycle” (Borup et al. 2006).
Today disappointment seems to dominate. However, not too long ago social media was
hyped: it was supposed to transform democracies, turning citizens from passive
consumers into active participants, and allowing the oppressed to connect and
organize (Loader and Mercea 2011). The Arab Spring and Euromaidan Revolution
were seen as early confirmations of this view. And not just politics, but also science
was supposedly going to be revolutionized by social media’s facilitation of free-flowing
information (Bartling and Friesike 2014).
One overinflated expectation is the promise of how social media was going to
transform our social life. Consider one of Facebook’s earliest mission statements (from
2008):
Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life. (Reagan
2009)
The use of the definite article – “the people in your life” – gives the mission statement
an unmistakeably intimate ring. You are not connecting and sharing with “people” in
the generic, but with your family and friends, whom you need and who need you. Social
media was going to be a tool for maintaining intimate friendships and caring
communities, even while at a physical distance.
This taps into a deep-seated human desire for community. It may have been
what led to the vast adoption of social media, going from 5% of adults in 2005 to 72%
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in 2020 in its initial U.S. market (Pew 2021). However, it clearly has also led to deep
disappointment.
First of all, since social media thrives on the desire for social approval, many
users tend to communicate “idealized selves” (Harris and Bardey 2019) – also termed
an avatar (e.g. Brunskill 2013) or a curated self (Hogan 2010). We seem to distort
basic features of our personality on social media. For instance, introverts often attempt
to appear to be (much) more extraverted online than they are in offline life (Harris and
Bardey 2019, 11). This strongly contrasts with the way social media is promoted by
corporations as a vehicle for empowerment and self-expression.
Dating platforms are where idealized self-presentation is at its most intense
(though unsurprisingly so). Users not only touch up their profile photograph, but also
mispresent height, weight, or age (Toma and Hancock 2010; Ellison, Heino, and Gibbs
2006). The vast increase in partner choice, far from representing an increase in
freedom or autonomy, seems to promote the “fear of missing out” in users. It can even
trigger a “rejection mind-set”, where even good potential partners are rejected in the
hope of finding someone “better” (Pronk and Denissen 2020). Instead of promoting
free choice, dating platforms stimulate us to rank potential partners more than we
otherwise would. This commodification of romantic partners seems to be a draining
process, and researchers speak of “Tinder fatigue” or “dating burnout” (see Pronk and
Denissen 2020).
Rankings did not originate with social media. Status hierarchies exist across
many animal species (L. Ellis 1995). However, social media does seem to have added
a new twist, where we identify with the success of online personas. For instance, our
social media following is rapidly become part of who we are in society (Harris and
Bardey 2019, 9). The result is that we, in the words of the psychiatrist David Brunskill,
identify with a “socially-derived and socially-driven composite online image”
(Brunskill 2013), to the detriment of genuine self-awareness.
A specific mechanism by which social media can lead to harm is that it promotes
competitive communication. We compete in order to capture attention, likes, and
affirmation; the winners are rewarded with status. This leads to social media users
engaging in what researchers call “upward social comparison”, where users compare
themselves to people they perceive as “superior” (Wheeler 1966; Vries et al. 2018;
Schmuck et al. 2019). This upward social comparison has clear negative impact on the
subject’s self-esteem and well-being (J.-L. Wang et al. 2017).
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So should we just conclude that social media is harmful for our mental health?
Such a blanket generalization seems to be difficult to make. Not everybody engages in
upward social comparison. Some users report more positive feelings after viewing a
positive post. This is a form what is called “emotional contagion”: instead of feeling
inferior due to other’s successes, some feel genuinely happy (Vries et al. 2018).
Nonetheless, even if only a fraction of users develop serious mental health
consequences from social media, this is still significant. Compare this to an epidemic
of viral infections. A virus may only provoke very mild symptoms in the vast majority
of a population, but even if it “only” kills 1% of all infected, this can still lead to a
dramatic population-level effect. Similarly, even if only a small minority is driven to
depression and even suicide (Twenge et al. 2020), this is still sufficient to warrant a
rethink in how we approach social media.
Ultimately, it is darkly ironic that a technology designed to “connect and share
with the people in your life” should have such pernicious effects on anyone. According
to the interpersonal theory of suicide (Van Orden et al. 2010; Joiner 2005), suicidal
desire is caused by two beliefs. The first is that one no longer “belongs”, which is taken
to refer to feelings of loneliness and the absence of reciprocally-caring relationships.
The second is the belief that one is a “burden” on others: the belief that one’s self is a
liability to others, and self-hatred. Hence, apparently, when some use a technology in
an attempt to be “more connected” and to “share more”, they experience the feeling
that they feel that they do not “belong” and that they are a “burden” on others.
3. The role of ethics. The type of approach offered by ethics can be contrasted with
the predominant response among policymakers or corporations: to draw up measures
to protect users. Sometimes it is the government that is called upon to take action (e.g.
Udorie 2015). At other times it is the corporate owner of social media platform (e.g.
Miller 2018). For instance, one of the very first protective policies is the ability to set
privacy controls (Keys 2018). These increase the control of users whom a social media
post is shared with – whether a post is “more” or “less” public.
Privacy controls have been around on a platform such as Facebook since 2008,
that is, before the observed uptick in mental health problems related to social media.
One might therefore be sceptical about whether they go to the heart of the problem.
Another far more controversial but also more thought-provoking proposal is to
remove the feature of “likes” from social media platforms. This, it is argued, minimizes
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upward social comparison and addictiveness (Miller 2018). Or in the words of one
executive: removing likes will “remove the pressure of how many likes a post will
receive, so you can focus on sharing the things you love” (Deguara 2019).
Would users even want the likes on their posts to not be visible? Would
removing likes resolve the problems associated with upward social comparison and
competitive communication? Nobody currently knows for sure, but in the following
sections I sketch some reasons to be sceptical: social media communication is public
and is inevitably competitive; introducing privacy controls or even removing likes will
not change this.
This is not an argument against the need to protect users, even from
themselves. Just look at the history of the automobile: at some point, the government
needed to step in and mandate the use of seat-belts in the UK, an initial law was
passed in 1981 (for drivers and front-seat drivers only: UK Parliament 1981). Similarly,
it sounds eminently sensible that social media applications should be redesigned as to
be less addictive (Miller 2018). My argument is that policy measures should occur in
tandem with a general change in user attitudes.
Such a change may happen without any conscious effort, through letting the
hype-disappointment cycle play out. However, this may take years or even decades. In
the meantime, an ethics of social media can help us navigate social media
environments.
When I use the word “ethics” here, I do not have in mind a system of rules and
judgments which guide our moral approbation, but the more Aristotelian sense of the
art of living: to act appropriately. This sense of ethics has only an indirect link with
utilitarian principles such as avoiding harm to others, or with principles of duty such
as respecting others. The classic example of an Aristotelian virtue is courage.
Attempting a summit of the Mount Everest may be courageous for a professional
alpinist, but would most likely be a form of recklessness for an armchair philosopher,
resulting from a lack of self-knowledge and perhaps arrogance.
One particularly instructive dimension of this Aristotelian sense of ethics is the
requirement to attach the “right amount” of importance to social realities. Here
Aristotle speaks not of status or popularity as we might do today, but of “honour”.
Aristotle deemed honour to be of more value than wealth or power, but even then, he
claimed that the virtuous person “does not care much even about honour”
(Nicomachean Ethics 1124 a1).
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Similarly, a virtuous engagement with social media could be thought of as not
caring too much (or too little) about social media success, but subordinating it to other,
more important goods. It is in this sense that “indifference” should be understood.
Just as the automobile lost its romance at some point in the 1950s, paving the way for
subordinating the technology to safety and clean air, it would be desirable if most of
us could, one day, achieve a similar “virtuous boredom” with social media.
4. Relational trust on social media. To achieve a little more clarity on the nature
social media interactions, consider the following recognizable type of social media
communication. Imagine some acquaintance posting about having gone on a holiday
on an exotic island, replete with pictures of him or her laughing with friends, having a
good time, and doing adventurous activities. Call this person, for the sake of
convenience, “Rich Acquaintance B”. The user who sees the post is “Poor Person A”.
Do you “trust” B? In one sense, you probably do trust B: you trust that they have
told the truth. After all, your first assumption would probably not be that B has entirely
fabricated the photos. However, in another, deeper sense, you don’t trust B. Some
philosophers distinguish a type of “trust” where you trust a person if you believe that
person has a benevolent attitude or “good will” towards you (following Baier 1986).
For instance, you may trust your mother in this fundamental sense. Even though you
may doubt her competence in some domain or even her truthfulness in some
situations (e.g., she may tell you a white lie), you would still agree that you trust her
because you know she cares about you, in some general, unqualified sense. This lack
of qualification is related to the “unquestioning” aspect of some of the most basic forms
of trust (Nguyen, forthcoming): the care is directed to a person as a whole, and is not
dependent on either competence or the nature of the task at hand (contrast with
Hawley 2014). The expectation of care is closely related to what we sometimes call the
“unconditional trust” we place in our family members, or close friends.
For future reference, let us call this deeper sense of trust, “relational trust”. My
concern is what social media does to relational trust. Interestingly, and not
coincidentally, Facebook’s early mission statement can be read as an indirect promise
of relational trust to its users, to connect and share with the people in your life”.
However, does this promise make sense, given the nature of the social media
environment?
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Let us return to the example with this concept of relational trust: does the post
of Rich Acquaintance B help promote the relational trust that Poor Person A may place
in B? In other words, does the communication help bring across that B cares about A?
The answer seems to be: not particularly. To see this, imagine the same
communication in a private setting. Imagine that B met with A privately. Would B
then still communicate with the same transparency about their exotic holiday? If B
cared about the well-being of A, then, knowing that A could not afford the holiday, B
would likely downplay the news. Instead of mentioning the spearfishing expedition, B
might complain about the hotel instead, or emphasize how nice it was to be back home.
The communication would have been shaped by the value of relational trust: B cares
about A, and thus wants to preserve the relational trust that A has in B, even if B is
only an acquaintance.
This illustrates how private communications are governed by norms that (at
least currently) seem to be absent on social media. B may post about an exotic holiday
without being considered particularly inconsiderate, self-centred, or mean-spirited. Is
this because social media is public, rather than private communication?
5. Private versus public. To say that a communication is “private” does not mean
it is “secret”. My conversations with a romantic partner may be private, but I may not
put any particular effort into keeping them secret. Governments keep secrets: they
expend considerable effort in preventing certain information from becoming public.
By contrast, most of my private communications are hardly a secret. If someone would
wish to know the mundane details of my life, my response would closer to indifferent
bemusement rather than to one of betrayal or indignation.
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What is private about such
communications lies not in the content of the communication, but in the manner in
which that content is communicated. I might be slightly embarrassed if my terms of
endearment were to become public knowledge. If I knew other people were listening
in, I would likely craft my message in a different way.
As another example of a distinctively private communication, consider telling a
bad joke to a good friend. If you were to broadcast the same bad joke on national
television, you might feel a mixture of shame and embarrassment – perhaps because
2
Note that it is precisely this attitude which underlies the “nothing to hide argument” in support of
surveillance programmes (cf. e.g Cofone 2020). We may not deem our private information worthy of
being kept secret, but third parties can nonetheless find ways to abuse it .
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the joke was in poor taste, or perhaps because it was just not very funny. Yet, in the
context of a 1-to-1 conversation, the bad joke may have been entirely appropriate. You
know that the good friend will appreciate the joke, and you know that only the good
friend will hear it.
To generalize, a private communication can be understood as a message that is
conveyed by one person with the intention that a specific person is the receiver. By
contrast, a public communication is a non-private one: a message conveyed without
any specific receiver in mind. Political communications, meant for all citizens of a
country, are one of the most indiscriminate public communications. However, public
communications can also target a type of receiver. For instance, scientific publications
are written for an audience of scientific peers. They are not crafted with the general
public mind, but at the same time neither are they private communications. Once there
is any degree of uncertainty (in one’s intention) as to who precisely will receive a
communication, then the communication can be said to be public.
Private and public communications are (often unconsciously) structured by
different social norms. Private communications typically take place in trusting
relationships, and aim to enhance relational trust rather than merely to convey
information about a state of affairs. The bad joke is not told for its information content,
but is told knowing that the good friend will appreciate that bad joke, and hence that
the bad joke can give pleasure. Similarly, by saying “rainy day, isn’t it?” to your
neighbour, your intention is not to convey information about the meteorological state
of affairs, but to create a (weak) bond by acknowledging a common challenge or
common experience. The absurdity of a government issuing a communiqué “rainy day,
isn’t it?” – let alone a social media user posting the same message as a status update –
underlines just how different the norms governing private communications are from
those governing public communications.
Communication, in general, is not always simply about the transmission of
information content about causal states of affairs, like whether snow is white.
Communication can serve to transmit information about the sender’s view of his or
her relationship with the receiver, including what value or status is ascribed to the
receiver. This is partially why we make small talk, or communicate tautological
propositions or make observations that are clear for everybody: to convey that we care
about the other person because we deem them worthy of being spoken to.
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Given this analysis, it is quite clear that online communication on social media
(Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and so on) has a public character. However, this public
character is often not obvious, and not only because of the mission statements of social
corporations couched in terms such as “caring” and “sharing”. The public character of
social media communication is often hidden because a lot of the content is private. If
I post something about my dog, then that is “private content” in the sense that it is not
particularly of “public interest”. Before the advent of social media, gatekeepers such
as journalists or editors would have screened away content about my dog (unless it bit
me). With social media, we can broadcast information that does not make any obvious
contribution to a common good, such as the state of scientific knowledge or the
advancement of a political debate. As an academic, I can post my latest articles to
Twitter, but I can also share what I happened to see on my afternoon run.
Not all social media platforms stimulate the sharing of private content to the
same degree. Facebook seems more geared to sharing private content than Twitter is.
This seems to be reflected in how, for instance, politicians gravitate towards Twitter as
a forum for their public communications (Silva and Proksch 2021). One could also ask
whether the confusion of private and public is inevitable. As used by some politicians,
Twitter can come to resemble a kind of newsletter or bulletin-board, where the posted
content is carefully curated in light of political goals. Where the confusion of private
and public is more obvious is, for instance, in the communications by celebrities of the
minutiae of their daily activities. If I see what Christiano Ronaldo had for breakfast, or
the loving attention he shows his children, I may be tempted to feel a misplaced
connection with him as if he were a friend of mine. All this information draws me into
the orbit of his life. However, he is not my friend, so how does the information really
contribute to the good of my life? If service to a common good were a criterion for
posting to Instagram, it would not be known beyond a closed circle of friends what
some celebrity had for dinner or wore to a party. It is in this way that the private and
public are confused on social media: private content is communicated publicly but in
such a way that gives users the impression that the communication is private, feeding
into the misplaced expectation that they can find friendship-like trust and intimacy on
social media.
Are we entirely unaware of the public character of social media? Probably not.
It would seem strange to post “rainy day, isn’t it” to social media, or to share a terrible
joke. The fact that we are disinclined to post about today’s weather illustrates how, at
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some level, we at least sometimes make the distinction between public and private
communication. However, we often confuse the distinction, both when we post
ourselves and when we read others’ posts. We share private content without tailoring
it to a particular intended receiver.
The concept of “context collapsecan be useful in clarifying just how public and
private relate here (Frost-Arnold 2021; boyd 2011).
3
Context collapse refers to how a
particular message can be appropriate for one social group (within certain shared
background assumptions), but inappropriate for another. It is seen as a misuse or ill-
advised use of social media that is to be avoided. And the public vs. private distinction
involves at least two contexts. A private communication is highly contextual insofar as
its content is tailored to a known receiver, and governed by norms of relational trust.
When this content is broadcast publicly, there is a kind of context collapse.
However, the context collapse is of a special kind. On the one hand, users
usually are spontaneously led by different norms than in private communications.
Hence, if private content is broadcast publicly, it is recontextualized to the extent that
it is rephrased to adopt the contours of a public communication. On the other hand,
the recontextualization is not complete, insofar as the content of the communication
stubbornly evokes expectations more appropriate to private contexts (for instance, by
being irrelevant for the common interest). Thus, the sender may have the misguided
expectation that the receivers were motivated by relational trust. Or, the receiver may
likewise have the misguided expectation that the sender was motivated by relational
trust, and when this expectation is disappointed, reactions of anger or diminished self-
worth can ensue.
Hence, if one were to rephrase the argument in terms of context collapse, social
media communication involves a partial decontexualization and a partial
recontextualization of private communication. Another distinctive feature of this kind
of context collapse is that it is not an unfortunate misuse of social media, but rather a
fundamental property of social media communication. In this respect, the ambiguous
context collapse involved with the blurring of private and public is not like the context
collapse present in the inadvertent quote or the ill-advised attempt at humour.
Without the ambiguity between private and public contexts, social media loses its
distinctive character and becomes like an electronic bulletin board, only containing
3
My thanks to Jon Webber, Oresmis Palestos, and Alessandra Tanesini for enquiring about this connection.
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announcements of public interest. The challenge for the user is to engage with
ambiguous context collapse in a virtuous way (see later).
6. The dangers of suppressing the private.
As a result, aspects of one’s private life become grist to the mill of status competition.
Status is the rank that persons ascribe to each other, such that persons can be, at least
to a certain extent, slotted into “status hierarchies”. Wealth, fame, or ability are some
of the most central indicators. In the online environment status is, more or less,
indicated by number of followers or likes.
It is entirely unsurprising that we use social media as a tool for status
competition. The human concern for social status is sometimes listed as one of the
possible “human universals”: we seem to care about status regardless of our gender,
culture, age, or personality (Anderson, Hildreth, and Howland 2015). Put a group of
strangers into a room together, give them a task, and within minutes they will sort
themselves into some kind of status hierarchy. Our caring about status is also not
capricious. Status has very real impacts on our lives, and is ultimately correlated with
health outcomes and even mortality rates (Wilkinson 2001; Marmot 2005).
Here it is crucial to distinguish between benevolent and perverse forms of status
competition. Anthropologists sometimes distinguish between “prestige” and
“dominance” (Henrich and Gil-White 2001). The former comes from competence,
ability, or a valuable service that benefits the community as a whole. The latter refers
to the threat of violence: physical violence, but also alliance-formation, bullying,
intimidation, or manipulation.
4
Most human societies try to keep perverse forms of
status-seeking at bay (Price and Van Vugt 2014; Desmond 2020b; 2021).
What type of status competition does social media seem to promote? Status in
the social media environment, measured by likes or follower counts, seems to interact
with status in the broader society in several ways. On the one hand, offline status is
often converted to online status. Humans upvote appearances of competence and
service. They also upvote appearances of power: a U.S. president will typically
4
This dichotomy, while sufficient for purposes here, is oversimplified. Often prestige and dominance
are intertwined in the offline world. For instance, those higher up on the corporate ladder may be more
competent and thus may have high “prestige”; however, their position may also give them the power to
hire and fire, promote and demote others. For a discussion, see (Henrich and Gil-White 2001; Chapais
2015).
15
command a large following by virtue of their position of power. In other words, both
prestige and dominance can be converted into likes and followers. However, online
status follows its own dynamic, and can be in turn be converted into prestige and
dominance. A large following (think of social media influencers) can translate into
wealth and influence.
However, status competition on social media seems closest to the dynamic of a
popularity contest, which has been been mainly studied in groups of children. Popular
children impact what types of behaviour become social norms in classrooms, and they
are typically in demand as a friend (W. E. Ellis and Zarbatany 2007). However,
bullying also apparently increases a child’s popularity (Redhead, Cheng, and
O’Gorman 2018, p. 3). Popularity is thus an ambiguous status measure with
similarities to both prestige and dominance.
Is social media enticing adults to enter popularity competitions or other
forms of perverse status competition? While more could be said about this than space
permits, this competitive aspect of social media can help make sense of just how social
media’s confusion between private and public ultimately has corrosive effects on
mental health. Private content has its “natural place” in intimate contexts
friendships, romantic relationships – that are far away from the public eye, but with
social media it is made public and submitted to competitive dynamics.
7. Social Media Virtues. In the past decade, we have gone from adulation to
demonization of social media, but collectively we have not yet done much conscious
searching for a golden mean. Perhaps the hype-disappointment cycle will play out of
its own accord. However, there is also reason to believe social media to be more
insidious than previous technologies. Social media attaches to our desire for
community and thus plays with our sense of identity. It takes events and emotions
from the intimate sphere and feeds them into the arena of public status competition,
often without us realizing.
Some of this balance may simply involve not spending too much time on social
media. In an experiment where groups of students disactivated Facebook for four
weeks, not only did disconnecting increase well-being remarkably, but it also affected
the users’ priorities, is well illustrated by one student’s comment:
I was way less stressed. I wasn’t attached to my phone as much as I was before.
And I found I didn’t really care so much about things that were happening
[online] because I was more focused on my own life I felt more content. I
16
think I was in a better mood generally. I thought I would miss seeing everyone’s
day- to-day activities … I really didn’t miss it at all. (Allcott et al. 2020, 655, my
emphasis)
What this participant is suggesting is that what was so beneficial was not the limiting
of time on social media, but rather the proper prioritization of values or activities in
his life. In particular, taking time away from social media allowed it to be subordinated
to other activities that were clearly experienced as more central to the students’ own
lives and better for their well-being.
However, the public and competitive nature of social media communication is
inevitable, regardless of how many privacy controls are instated, or whether likes are
suppressed. The challenge therefore lies in finding ways to engage with this public,
competitive character of social media in a virtuous way. Part of the response here
surely lies in reforming the social media environment, in order to safeguard privacy
and redirect competition. Thus, social media corporations have established forms of
social status that are not brute popularity (e.g., “blue checks” in Twitter), and
proposals to introduce less anger-promoting interfaces (e.g., Tanesini, this volume)
can help as well. Both help redirect the popularity competition towards more desirable
values.
However, virtuous action presupposes user discretion in choosing the response,
and thus a freedom to act inappropriately – precisely something that a policy response
seeks to avoid. So how should we choose appropriately? Here the type of care shown
by professionals is a useful model for ethical interactions on social media. A good
physician, architect, engineer, or psychologist will care about their patient or client –
but not in the exact same way a parent cares about their child. There is no prior
intimate dyadic relationship that grounds the care. Professional care thus does not
involve relational trust and cannot be called “personal” in the way, for instance, filial
care can. Instead, professional care reflects how the professional believes some
standard of competent service to be valuable for the community (for more on
professionalism, see Desmond 2020a). Professional care shows how care can be
relatively impersonal (indeed, a professional and their client may largely remain
strangers to each other) and not necessarily involve the feelings of love that are often
associated with care.
5
5
For instance, Vallor defines “technomoral care” as “a skillful, attentive, responsible, and emotionally
responsive disposition to personally meet the needs of those with whom we share our technosocial
17
Professional ethics is a useful analogy for thinking about social media because
it points to a type of care that is appropriate outside of a merely private context.
Interacting “with care” on social media, at first approximation, means communicating
something valuable for others, despite being uncertain about who the receiver will be
and what their needs are. Especially given the dangers of misguided expectations of
relational trust, both senders and receivers of messages on social media could evaluate
their own and others’ communications according to the a standard of what is valuable
for others. A sender may ask, does this message contribute to others’ lives? A receiver
may ask, does this message contribute to my life? If the answer is no, the message may
be merely grist to the mill of online popularity competition, and therefore should be
disregarded.
However, the analogy with professional care breaks down in considering how
social media’s unique integration of private content within public communication. For
instance, a psychiatrist may share their opinions about the latest DSM on social media
in a way they would never do during consultation. Indeed, to opine in this way to a
patient could be a breach of professional ethics; yet, the very same content could
constitute a virtuous use of social media. It can be of genuine interest to others to hear
about these opinions. So, unless social media is to be reduced to an electronic bulletin
board consisting of formal communication only , it should be possible for individuals
to share their private thoughts, emotions, or actions in a way that is of genuine interest
and value to others. In sum, sharing private content on social media can be a genuine
form of care.
How precisely can we know if we are behaving in a proper “caring” way? That
is a different question.
6
My point here is to bring attention to care as a basic way of
orienting one’s online agency towards what is valuable to others. This is not a form of
self-sacrificial altruism, but rather a prerequisite for online flourishing. If one’s
primary concern is for others, one is liberated from the need to receive instantaneous
environment(Vallor 2016, p. 138-9). This definition of technomoral care is appropriate for the
examples of technologically-aided nursing she seems to have in mind. However, the concept of care is
too personal to be applicable for social media interactions. Social media interactions are emotionally
thin interactions (limited to a short text supplemented perhaps with emoticons), are not necessarily
skillful, nor are they typically directed to the needs of specific persons. My thanks to Alessandra Tanesini
for enquiring about this connection.
6
For instance, sharing private information can become an expression of narcissism rather than of care.
How can we know that we are sharing virtuously, and not viciously? If the virtue ethics of social media
is like other forms of virtue ethics, there is no general answer to this question. How to act with care can
only be judged in particular situations, through phronesis.
18
affirmation from others. Care for others helps avoid the dangers of increased anxiety
or commodification of one’s own identity.
At the level of policy, virtue ethics emphasises the primary importance of
education. This is education for virtuous living paideia (Aristotle, Politics, book
VIII) – rather than education that merely aims at marketable skills or at intellectual
knowledge for its own sake. What would this education look like? Based on the
considerations of this essay, it would seek to raise awareness (especially among
adolescents) about the public nature of social media, how social media
communications are often competitive, and how this can impact a person’s self-
esteem. It would reveal what we know about our evolved psychology, and its sensitivity
to status. It would warn of popularity competitions, and explain the importance of
more benevolent types of status. It would emphasise that, as public communication,
social media is best used not for seeking relational trust and signals that others care,
but rather for broadcasting messages of value to one’s wider social network.
By contrast, if one wishes to receive consolation or affirmation, then one should
seek out friends or family. In this way, habits of care with regard to social media
interaction seem also to depend on realizing what social media cannot give us: the joys
we experience with private, intimate, offline communication. If the collective
realization of the joy of walking without having to worry about large, heavy metallic
objects moving at high speeds gave rise to the growth of pedestrianized zones, similarly
the joy of privacy and intimacy may give rise to social media-free zones in life. By
helping users to adopt a wider perspective both on the nature of social media and even
their own “nature”, social media education may help instil healthy habits, and thus a
durable and effective response to some of the mental health challenges facing social
media users today.
Acknowledgments
My thanks to Alessandra Tanesini, Orestis Palermos, and especially Jon Webber for
providing valuable feedback on earlier versions of this chapter. Thanks also to the
audience at ‘Values and Virtues in a Changing World’ workshop.
19
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